With some experience behind the scenes in the world of professional craft brewing, I’d like to toss out a few thoughts for my fellow beer enthusiasts in an effort to address the growing problem of what I call Armchair Brewer Syndrome.
Not unlike Spoiled Brat Syndrome, the origins of ABS can be traced to the very presence of our modern convenience society. In mere seconds, I can have a burger (unhealthy and chemically-flavored) in my mouth, a gi-normous latte (skinny, no whip) in my hand or a 55-pound sack of Golden Promise in the mail (maybe even with free shipping). I think Americans are more at risk, but I haven’t done any research. I’m just making this up, but I think it’s worth considering.
That stuff is all both fine and dandy, but counter to some of the principles many brewers, beer (and food) lovers tend to espouse. We enjoy the process of brewing. The process of cooking. And, most certainly, the glorious finished product. We brag about supporting local breweries, local (and seasonal) ingredients as well as underdoggish David vs. Goliath scenarios.
But like a spoiled child, we bitch, piss and moan when certain beers don’t enter our market. Or when certain brewers don’t send their entire portfolio of beers (right a-freaking-way). Or when our state is allotted less than a pallet of some rare, incredible or seasonal beer.
Like a spoiled child, we complain that certain breweries are draught only. We complain that certain beers aren’t as good as they were last year. We complain that brewers don’t give out free t-shirts and glassware. We complain that certain beers (or breweries) aren’t at our favorite local watering hole or restaurant. We moan that the brewery won’t ship to our door. We bitch that they haven’t yet come out with a double IPA, something on cask, something Belgian or something aged in a bourbon barrel.
Further, we expect that small breweries will donate beer for every event or cause we might toss their way. We expect them to bring out the “big guns” at every festival we attend. We expect that there will never be a shortage of our favorite beer. The list of our demands could go on and on.
But life these days is a little too easy. And some fine people have expectations that are out of line with reality. Perhaps this problem is simply due to the fast food society that has grown in our midst. Perhaps we grew up privileged. Perhaps our divorced parents over-compensated by giving gifts over time. And maybe we’re just albatrossed by greed and envy.
Whatever the reason, some of us think we can run a brewery better than those presently running them. Like the armchair quarterback who thinks he can call plays better than the guy on the field with a Heisman Trophy under his belt or a Super Bowl Championship Ring on his finger, the ABS sufferer thinks they have all the answers.
We all have good ideas, to be sure. But our beer goggles blur more than the beauty of the opposite sex. Unless you’re in the midst (and being an active part of a beer forum doesn’t equal “the midst”) of it, there are many aspects of the brewing business that some folks don’t always think about.
The law for one. Or, the laws. You want that brewery to come to your fine, and possibly deserving, state? Well, reality dictates that the brewery will need to get acquainted with a whole new set of laws. If they distribute their beer in just 10 states, that’s ten states’ worth of laws, some with peculiarities that might require an additional hoop through with a brewer may be required to jump. For example, North Carolina requires beers over 6% abv to have the alcohol content printed on the label. That might mean the time, and expense, of printing a whole separate label for one lousy state. Be thankful when they arrive, as they’ve often made great behind-the-scenes effort to get there.
Paperwork. Tons of it.Their labels will need to be approved–for each individual beer. They need to find a distributor–and one that’s a good fit. Shipping–it ain’t cheap. Support on the ground in a new market. Kegs–they don’t grow on trees, and they ain’t cheap.
Kegs alone present a consideration. It’s tough for breweries to recover their kegs. They can’t fill orders if they don’t have kegs to put beer into. So the simple answer is to buy more kegs. Like I said, they are costly, and for the small brewery, or any small business, the superfluous ten grand isn’t in the petty cash box. Like kegs (and lotsa bottles), firkins and bourbon barrels represent a significant added investment.
Speaking of petty issues, how about those t-shirts, those glasses? “It’ll be free advertising if I’m out wearing it around town.” Yes, you’ll give the brewery a little exposure. But if a brewer gave a shirt to every person that asked, he or she would quickly go out of business. As someone who has fielded that question, I’ll tell you–breweries hear it a lot.
Just like they get requests for donating beer a lot. There are scads of good causes out there, but again, breweries are businesses. They’re trying to make money. Giving out free beer at in-store tastings, festivals and the occasional fund raiser does serve as a means of do-able marketing for a small business with a small budget, but bleed the beast and it will die. It’s even worse when the charity (or other event) aren’t easy, aren’t helpful, aren’t thankful.
I’ve experienced a number of events that bruised my soul. I was expected, not enjoyed. I was hassled, not helped. I was marginalized, not mentioned. I brought time, beer, enthusiasm and (some measure of) expertise.
Heaven forbid that this year’s batch doesn’t meet the expectations established by last year’s incredible version of Russian Imperial Stout. There’s a craft to craft beer. Many variables. Ingredients, time, demand. While those seasonals are exciting, they don’t pay the bills like the “plain, old” everyday offerings. Rather than complain, we should appreciate the nuances of this year’s beer–if our memories are even serving us correctly. I’m sure that beers don’t grow and improve in our mind over the course of time (or based on the buzz we’ve heard or the medals garnered), he said, smart-assedly.
When it comes down to it, we beer geeks are getting a little selfish. Presumptuous. Spoiled. This isn’t good for the scene, and in many cases, our desires wouldn’t be good for the businesses we say we love.
Oscar Wilde sums it up quite well: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
All too often, we point out shortcomings. We grump when our children make mistakes, but do we praise them each time we see them doing well? We moan when the waitress gets our order wrong, but do we speak thanks when she’s doing a truly superb job of tending to our dining needs? In my days of working with troubled youth, I noticed that many of my colleagues were quick to call the case manager, parent or court counselor when the youth made a mistake, but when things were going well–not so. Unfortunately, we take the good for granted. In those days, I tried to discipline myself to call the court counselor and let them know that their kid was doing great, making good choices, improving his academics.
Today, I’d like to offer a challenge: Call or email a brewer. Tell them you appreciate their products, their efforts. Then, and this will be the tough part–ask for nothing. Don’t use the contact as an excuse to ask for a barrel-aged beer. Don’t hassle them about how soon they will get their beer into bottles. Just thank them, and encourage them. Put your selfish agenda aside. Take the first step toward beating your own private version of Armchair Brewer Syndrome.
If you can do it, and if I can do it, we can get to brewvana together.